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Tallying up the worth of the move

As that most eccentric of art museums, the Barnes Foundation, prepares to move its peerless collection of impressionist art from the cozy comfort of suburban Merion to the big city, there are two essential questions worth asking about the plan for its future home on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway: What's lost? What's gained?

An artist's rendering of the Barnes Museum on the Parkway.
An artist's rendering of the Barnes Museum on the Parkway.Read more

October 7, 2009.

As that most eccentric of art museums, the Barnes Foundation, prepares to move its peerless collection of impressionist art from the cozy comfort of suburban Merion to the big city, there are two essential questions worth asking about the plan for its future home on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway: What's lost? What's gained?

The architectural design that the Barnes will submit today for the Philadelphia Art Commission's conceptual approval can't be evaluated in the usual terms because it is so much more than the latest contender for the title of the world's most glamorous art palace. The architecture also must succeed as an exoneration of the foundation's alleged crimes against the memory of its founder, the mercurial, vengeful Albert C. Barnes.

What's astonishing is just how far the design by New York's Tod Williams and Billie Tsien goes toward fulfilling that mission impossible. Even critics who feel the Barnes is wrenching the collection from its historic womb will have to work to find reasons to hate this building. The architecture is that good.

That doesn't mean that something ineffable won't be lost by relocating Barnes' trove of Matisses and Cezannes to a more institutional building in an urban setting. By today's museum standards, the cluttered, perennially shabby, cafe-less Merion galleries have a funky, eccentric charm, and there is too little eccentricity in our modern world.

So, sadly, yes, the weirdness will be lost when the Barnes occupies its Parkway building in 2012. What has happened to the Barnes is a tragedy, and many deserve blame: the neighbors, Lower Merion Township, Lincoln University, the Barnes' management under Richard Glanton. Together this accidental cabal drove the Barnes into insolvency, necessitating a rescue by Philadelphia's philanthropists.

Is it any wonder that, when those donors agreed to bail out the Barnes, for the better part of $200 million, they insisted on calling the shots?

Shipping the entire collection to Philadelphia wasn't the only way to save the Barnes. But it was the way chosen by the people paying the freight. The public payoff is that four times as many people - some 250,000 visitors a year are projected - will see the art, because the gallery's hours will no longer be restricted.

To their credit, the donors - the Pew, Annenberg and Lenfest foundations - recognize that the Barnes is greater than the sum of its paintings. The collection derives its power from the unusual, some might say nutty, system that Barnes devised for hanging paintings in the '20s. That arrangement will be replicated exactly in the Philadelphia galleries, with the notable exception of Matisse's Joy of Life, which will be hung in its own alcove.

After the foundation won permission in 2004 to break Barnes' will, some voices suggested that the foundation should re-create Paul Phillipe Cret's neoclassical gallery in Philadelphia. At the time, the proposal seemed naive.

Yet, that is exactly what Williams and Tsien have done, with a subtle modernist twist. Formally, the building can be seen as three planes, sliding against one another, in an eternal quest for architectural nirvana.

Rather than embalm the replicated Merion building in the center of a larger structure, the architects place the long container front and center, facing the Parkway as a free-standing structure. They abstract and flatten Cret's Beaux-Arts facade, which will be clad in a Negev limestone called Ramon Gray Gold, arranged in an asymmetrical pattern inspired by African kente cloth.

The side facing the Parkway, however, isn't the Merion front; it's the back wall, with the gorgeous, now abstracted, French windows opening onto a lawn. Set 100 feet from the sidewalk, and cocooned by greenery, the Barnes will again be a gallery in a garden, albeit one that sits on 4.5 acres instead of 12.

What? How dare the architects turn the Barnes' back to Philly's great cultural allée?

Visitors will have to wend their way through the gardens, designed by Philadelphia's Laurie C. Olin, to enter through a second, L-shaped structure that houses the museum extras the Barnes has always craved: special exhibition galleries, offices, a conservation laboratory, a cafe.

My heart sank when I first heard of this back-door scheme, which seems reminiscent of the National Jewish Museum's refusal to look Independence Mall in the eye. But I realized that it follows a disciplined logic.

By requiring a long processional walk through the gardens, the architects position visitors so that the first thing they see as they walk through the main portal is the front of the Merion galleries, also abstracted from Cret's original.

After purchasing a ticket, they will pass through an atrium, roofed with an elongated lantern. They proceed to an entrance that corresponds exactly to the one in Merion, setting them up for an identical gallery experience. The Parkway's 75-foot London plane trees will screen at least some urban cacophony.

What makes the design so intelligent is that every architectural move serves multiple purposes. The creation of a separate container for the Merion galleries preserves the Barnes' integrity. It enables natural light to filter into the galleries through the similarly placed clerestory windows.

Meanwhile, keeping the new functions in the L-shaped pavilion prevents the Barnes experience from being diluted. The architects drive home the separation symbolically by leaving a four-foot space where the two structures meet. They were so concerned about turning the Barnes into a typical museum, they hid the bookstore in the basement and the cafe behind the ticket counter.

The building's organization has a rigorous clarity, but the rich, artisanal texturing of the facade should raise the Barnes to a quality rarely seen in Philadelphia. The limestone panels will be laid over a stainless steel undershirt, so the surface sparkles. Vertical fins will add dimension and shadow. The reference to kente cloth, incidentally, evokes the influence of African art on modernist painters, and Barnes' own love of African sculpture.

If the design were just a modern version of a classical building, it would be ho-hum indeed. But the designers, assisted by project architect Philip Ryan, sabotage their exercise in classicism with the rooftop lantern, which shoots 50 feet beyond the plane of the Merion gallery, toward the adjacent Rodin Museum.

This oversized diving board turns the Barnes into an asymmetrical building, salvaging the architects' modernist cred. It will be a Parkway landmark at night and a thrilling hidden garden by day.

The diving board symbolically reaches out toward Cret's Rodin, the Parkway, infinity, and the gorilla on the Parkway, the Art Museum. In much the same way, the architects' other Philadelphia building, Penn's Skirkanich Hall, insouciantly breaks through the building plane on 33rd Street, to point its Ivy Tower occupants toward the real life of Center City.

Still, we can't help returning to the back-door issue. The architects placed an enchanting outdoor cafe along Pennsylvania Avenue, as well as a landscaped, 80-car parking lot. Another reason for the garden walk to the back entrance is that the architects feel the Merion experience is too "compressed." The journey allows visitors time to prepare themselves for one of the most intense art experiences of their lives.

The new pavilion acts as a giant vestibule. The architects have also played tricks with their pledge to replicate the gallery sequencing with two insertions: A tier of classrooms on the west side, and a three-story terrarium on the east.

What makes aesthetic sense doesn't always make urban sense. The fundamental rationale for moving the Barnes to the Parkway is to create visible activity in the empty zones between cultural activities.

Olin has designed a lovely entry plaza at 20th Street, featuring a fountain decorated with water lilies. But no matter how perfect the execution, a plaza cannot provide the eyes-on-the-street of a cafe.

No doubt, some will look at the design's rectilinear composition and decry the arrival of another quiet Philadelphia building. They will fail to understand that this design is more than surface deep, that it must be studied in the same formal way that Albert C. Barnes insisted on for paintings and sculpture.

It is an ode to Philadelphia's 20th-century architectural triumvirate: Cret, Kahn and Venturi. It aspires to Kahn's transcendent light, Venturi's flatness, and Cret's mediation between classicism and modernism. If Philadelphia is lucky, the design could give Philadelphia a museum as enduring as the ones those three created.

The Art Commission

At 9:30 a.m. today, the Art Commission is scheduled to review the new plans for the Barnes on the Parkway in the city public meeting room at 1515 Arch St. Information: 215-683-2095. The commission is the city's design review board for architecture and art. It must approve the designs of all construction and alterations that are paid for wholly or in part with city money or that are on city land, including streets.